15 July 2019

The next Prime Minister must resist attempts to muzzle the media


We are justly proud in Britain of the freedom of expression that we enjoy. While the world has generally become more liberal in recent decades, it only requires a moment’s reflection and a mild knowledge of international affairs to acknowledge what a great prize this is.

Across the globe, a huge number of others put themselves in physical danger by voicing their opinions – in Russia, China and too many other countries to list. But for us, free speech is fundamental to the British inheritance.

In many respects, it is in rude health. Social media makes it easier than ever to exercise that freedom. We are all journalists now. Surely there can never have been a point in history when so many of us spent so much of our time expressing our opinions in public.

Yet the instinct for censorship in our rulers remains strong. Ten years ago we saw the MPs expenses scandal where the response of many politicians was fury that the press had got hold of the story and been allowed to expose what was happening.

Officialdom still reacts with instinctive rage to leaks. The recent brouhaha involves the disclosure of some comments by Sir Kim Darroch, the now former British Ambassador to the US, being rude about President Trump. Sir Kim accused Trump of being “inept” – but to put such a comment in an email to a long list of recipients was itself pretty crass.

One can argue about whether the blunder was personal or institutional. While for a Foreign Office mandarin to hold such a view was predictable, for it to be publicised was a pretty staggering breach of protocol. Certainly, it was embarrassing and produced an inevitably spirited response from the President. But the most worrying aspect of the whole affair was Neil Basu of the Metropolitan Police suggesting that journalists could be held criminally responsible for publishing leaked government documents.

As the former Brexit Secretary, David Davis, wrote in a letter to The Times this morning: “Prosecuting journalists for embarrassing the state is not what we do in the UK.” he added: “During the Brexit negotiation process there were deliberate leaks of material that undermined our position. There were leak inquiries, but never a suggestion that there should be criminal prosecutions of the leakers, let alone the press! The British establishment seems to lose its sense of proportion when either Trump or Brexit is concerned. I now see the leaker being described as a “Brexiteer Philby”. Really? Do these people remember the (literally) lethal harm that Philby and his clique did? Let us get a sense of balance back into this annoying, but essentially temporary, diplomatic spat.”

Although the Conservatives are supposed to be the party of freedom their record is suspect. A low point during the coalition Government was scheming to regulate the press. The spectacle of politicians haggling over takeaway pizzas cravenly waiting for the approval of unelected lobby groups such as Hacked Off was unappealing. The threat was backed by Lord Leveson’s inquiry.

That mission proved unworkable due to a mixture of press defiance and the fact the internet has made such restrictions unworkable. If censorship (for instance of material some busybody quango decides is inaccurate) is applied to newspapers’ printed material, then why not newspapers’ online material? If online newspapers, then why not blogs? If blogs, why not tweets?

But then, demands to restrict the internet come in thick and fast as well. As with all business sectors, sometimes the demand for regulation comes from the big established players happy to block out new competitors.

Last month we had a classic of the genre from Sir Nick Clegg, the former Deputy PM and now a Facebook executive. He was all in favour of onerous new obligations on social media to ensure “oversight” of what content is acceptable. After all, Facebook can afford to cope with such a burden of compliance.

So is it inevitable that with such constant pressure, the freedom of the media will be eroded? One ally in resisting such pressure may be Boris Johnson, who is very likely to be our next Prime Minister. When he was Mayor of London and the newspapers were under attack from Leveson, Johnson was on the side of the resistance. He endorsed the Free Speech Network formed to fight the plans. Johnson said: “One of the reasons London is regarded as the greatest city on earth to live in and to invest in is because we have the stability that goes with not just the rule of law but a system of government that is almost entirely free from corruption and criminal activity. At virtually every level. And that is very largely thanks to the free, dynamic, irreverent and independent media that we have and is one of the glories of this country. And we have got to fight to keep it that way.”

Of course, Johnson is himself a journalist – though that is no guarantee of backing press freedom (consider the behaviour of Alastair Campbell). What gives me more comfort is that on a range of subjects Johnson shows himself to be an instinctive libertarian. He is not ideological, there is too much open-mindedness – if one was being unkind, capriciousness – in his approach. But with all issues he starts with a prejudice in favour of freedom. That also reflects his personality – a sense of mischief, a tolerance of dissent, a generosity of spirit. None of this makes him disposed to slam a great big clunking fist down on the media just because they might be disobliging about him on occasion.

Every week there is a bright new idea to tighten control of the media. It should be conceded that sometimes these might be justified. There is a need to protect national security, to safeguard children, and to prevent incitement to violence. What is so insidious is the way that these valid reasons are then put forward as excuses for creeping tyranny. Prime Ministers will tend to see the attractions of increased state control. My hope is that Boris Johnson will be big enough to resist.

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Harry Phibbs is a blogger and journalist.